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War in Waikato

Page 3 – The opening phase

The British invasion of Waikato began on 12 July 1863. Because of their comparative lack of men and supplies, the Kīngitanga strategy was to construct defensive lines to obstruct the British advance, an approach that had been effective in Taranaki in 1860–61. The first line of defence was at Meremere. After this was bypassed, Rangiriri and Pāterangi provided a second and then a third barrier.


Following the initial invasion on 12 July, the 65th Regiment established the Alexandra Redoubt on a hill above the Waikato River. From here the British moved to control the lower reaches of the river and protect the supply lines of the invasion force. The fight to control the heights above the Waikato River began on 17 July at Koheroa. Te Huirama (Ngāti Mahuta) led up to 150 men in this battle but was forced to retreat when Lieutenant-General Duncan Cameron attacked his positions. About 15 Māori were killed, with the British suffering only one fatality. The invaders were now able to build a redoubt facing their principal target, the Māori defences at Meremere.

Between July and October a number of skirmishes occurred in South Auckland and along the Great South Road. Redoubts protecting settlements and the road were gradually manned by regiments of Waikato Militia recruited in Australia. This freed up Cameron’s regular forces for operations further south. While James Belich argues that the skirmishing delayed Cameron’s advance, Christopher Pugsley believes that this had little impact, as the aim of the initial attack in July was to establish a foothold and enable preparations for a summer campaign. In any event, Cameron was ready to move south at the end of October.

Meremere: October 1863

At its peak the Māori force at Meremere numbered perhaps a thousand men under the overall command of Ngāti Haua leader Wiremu Tāmihana. Every tribe which acknowledged the authority of King Tāwhiao had fighters there.

The Māori force had three ships’ guns which had been given to Ngāti Tahinga by a trader many years earlier. These cannon were carried overland from Raglan, then brought downriver by canoe. A former East India Company gunner living in Waikato was forced to train Māori to fire them. With no ammunition available, they fired projectiles improvised from iron chain, nails and pound weights that had little effect on armoured vessels.

Cameron assembled an armoured fleet to carry men and supplies for the assault on Meremere. The paddle-steamer Avon had been readied for war at Onehunga in 1862. Iron-plated for protection from enemy fire, it was armed with a 12-pounder ship’s gun and a Congreve rocket tube. Four armoured barges were prepared to ferry troops. In October 1863 this fleet was boosted by the arrival of the ‘rifle gunboat’ Pioneer. Capable of carrying 300 men, this was the first naval vessel built for the New Zealand government.

On 31 October 1863, 600 men of the 40th and 65th regiments and two 12-pounder Armstrong guns were loaded onto the Pioneer, the Avon and the four barges, which were towed by two steamers. The convoy was fired at as it steamed past Meremere before landing 10 km upriver. Cameron’s plan was to cut off Meremere from its support base at Pukekawa on the other side of the river and attack the position from both north and south. Meremere’s defenders were outflanked and had little choice but to withdraw to the east. The British occupied the abandoned pā next day. The first major obstacle on the river had been removed, but Cameron had been unable to lure his opponents into a costly battle. He would have to advance further south to achieve a decisive victory.

How to cite this page

The opening phase, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated